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This essay was prepared by the writer as the presidential address for the American Philological Association, and was delivered at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the evening of December 29, 1926.
HENRY RUSHTON FAIRCLOUGH
Professor of Classical Literature
STANFORD UNIVERSITY, CALIFORNIA
July 1, 1927
THE CLASSICS AND OUR TWENTIETH-CENTURY POETS
When I first announced my subject, one of my unsympathetic colleagues remarked that he was not aware that there were any twentieth-century poets. Similarly, in The Romantic '90's, Richard Le Gallienne tells how once in his boyhood, when he was introduced to the study of Virgil, he provoked his master's laughter by naïvely asking, “Are there poets still alive?" It may be, too, that some of us, in our devotion to our great classical writers, are like the uncle to whom H. P. Collins thus dedicates his recent book on Modern Poetry: "To my uncle, a rather good classical scholar, who never opens a book of modern poetry, and, when he finds it quoted, skips it.”
But we, students and teachers of literature, cannot afford to shut our eyes to the fact that, in this our own day and generation, a great deal of good poetry is published from year to year. Indeed, with our intellectual interests and literary training we should be among the first to serve as critics of current verse, especially if—as is often the case—it makes a peculiar appeal to those who are familiar with the classics of Greece and Rome. Unhappily, however, I fear it will be a surprise to not a few of our scholars to learn that a great deal of the best poetry of today—as judged by competent critics -is so intimately linked with Greek and Latin literature that a reader, to whom the great originals are unknown, must often fail to catch or interpret the modern writer's meaning.
Here I can imagine that some of my audience may be inclined to say that I am surely overlooking such a series of books as Our Debt to Greece and Rome, and the many excellent volumes which have already appeared therein. These do, of course, dwell upon the significance of ancient writers in this twentieth century of ours, and furnish the interpreter of classical literature with a large amount of modern material which is closely related to the ancient masterpieces, but the point I wish to emphasize is that our classical scholars should keep abreast of current literature, as it appears year by year and month by month, and should claim the right to pass judgment upon it, especially if it is closely related, in type or theme or style, to their special field.
My paper this evening is devoted to contemporary poetry; but let me say
1 Modern Poetry, by H. P. Collins. New York and Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company; London: Jonathan Cape. 1926.
2 Published by Longmans, Green & Co., 55 Fifth Avenue, New York.
that it would be easy to extend the study so as to cover classical influence in other literary and artistic fields as well. Recent biography, for example, includes such notable examples as Michael Pupin's From Immigrant to Inventor, and Harvey Cushing's Sir William Osler. In the former book the great physicist confesses that the chief inspiration of his youth and undergraduate days was Greek literature, while a bibliography of the many Greek and Latin writers referred to in Osler's letters would amaze the casual reader, who will probably suppose that the most famous of modern physicians must have lived quite outside the sphere of classical influence. Another conspicuous biography of the day is The Life and Letters of Walter Hines Page, edited by Burton J. Hendrick. This important and fascinating work has for many of us an added charm as we recall the fact that Mr. Page held a Fellowship in Greek under Gildersleeve in the early days of Johns Hopkins, and it is easy for the Greek scholar to detect the influence of his classical studies on style and expression in Page's written work. Even in the sphere of poetry, I must omit from examination many good works which might claim consideration, especially in the dramatic field. Eugene O'Neill, for instance, who is more discussed today than any other dramatist on this side of the Atlantic, has confessed that his chief aim is "to see the transfiguring nobility of tragedy, in as near the Greek sense as one can grasp it, in seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives. . . . . Essentially,” he says, "drama is a celebration of the individual in conflict with something --Fate, circumstances, moral and social law—which hampers or crushes him. .... One must have a dream, and the Greek dream is the noblest ever !”3
As I shall not again be able to deal with Eugene O'Neill, let me here add that under the spell of Greek tragedy O'Neill has revived the practice of inserting somewhat lengthy speeches as soliloquies, and Arthur Hobson Quinn, who writes about O'Neill as “Poet and Mystic,” has to confess that his own objections to this method “go by the board,” for, as he says, “it is a great thing for art when academic traditions are shattered by creative
Apart from literature, I could wish that time would permit me to say something about classical influence upon contemporary art, our architecture, sculpture, and even music. As to the first and second of these, everyone will admit that they still possess an extraordinary vitality, and in regard to music, let me remind you of Sir Hubert Parry's music to several Greek plays, of the beautiful Greek Themes in Modern Musical Settings by Professor Albert A. Stanley of the University of Michigan, and of such a
8 “Eugene O'Neill, Poet and Mystic,” by Arthur Hobson Quinn in Scribner's, October 1926.